by TOM NIXON
The original The Day the Earth Stood Still saw alien-meets-Christ figure Klaatu come to Earth with the warning that various galactic leaders are concerned by our newfound nuclear capabilities. He’s a savior, remaining optimistic about mankind’s ability to turn things around despite getting contained, shot at, even killed. Keanu Reeves’ incarnation is past the point of warnings, his stance towards mankind is more cynical and his task more gruesome. This time galactic leaders aren’t concerned for themselves but for Earth itself, precious in its ability to house life; the destruction of man has become a necessary evil.
Klaatu clearly wants a reason not to carry out his job, as Reeves’ vague frowns somehow effectively indicate, but every chance is spurned by the usual suspects, from gung-ho military force to arrogant “presidential representative” (Kathy Bates). He’s shot as soon as he emerges from his warped sphere of a spaceship, in turn protected by seemingly invulnerable iron giant-meets-Cyclops bodyguard Gort who inevitably instills more panic. Speaking of The Iron Giant, have any subsequent alien invasion movies caricatured the powers that be as an embodiment of paranoia and intolerance without it feeling stale and uninteresting? As powerfully ironic as it is (or isn’t) to have our fear of destruction end up causing said destruction, such portrayals seem to get more and more artificially black and white with every rendition.
Only bland astrobiologist widow Helen Benson (Jennifer Connolly) casts a reasonable, faithful gaze upon Klaatu, offering him help at every opportunity. Meanwhile her troubled step-son Jacob, who misses his dead soldier father and doesn’t like his new mom very much (he calls her Helen and refuses to eat his tea), insists that dad would’ve killed the aliens and saved the Earth, then changes his mind about the killing part after Klaatu absentmindedly saves his life. They discover Klaatu’s mission and try to reason with him, but he remains unmoved until a climactic moment where Jacob cries in Helen’s arms at his dad’s grave. Love is a powerful thing, you know? Especially when coupled with wise Professor Barnhardt’s (John Cleese) optimistic idea that on the brink of destruction we’ll find the will to change, an idea that seems to conflict with Klaatu’s earlier claim that we’ve already passed the tipping point. Turns out mankind isn’t all bad after all, sorry about the whole annihilating you thing. There’s something haplessly contrived about it all, and you can’t help but feel a more professional bringer of doom would’ve required rather more convincing.
It’s hard to find plus points. Derrickson’s direction and Scarpa’s screenplay are largely inoffensive only because they completely lack identity, jumping from one sci-fi cliché to the next without pause for breath. Remake or no remake, such a lack of invention isn’t excusable. There’s one hideous exchange between Helen and Jacob as Klaatu is flying away: “It’s leaving.” “No… he’s leaving.” They share a smile. What’s worse is that the film’s few original ideas are among its most terrible; Klaatu’s weapon of choice for destroying mankind is a ridiculous swarm of insects, which can engulf huge stadiums in seconds but take forever whenever they’re in the vicinity of the central characters.
Reeves fits his part comfortably, but it’s hard to say whether that’s a good thing. Youngster Jaden Smith (son of the fresh prince) continues to show potential, bringing spunk and emotion to parts that might otherwise have fallen completely flat. Gort is cool because he’s a huge impervious robot, but he’s actually kind of lightweight and glossy. Otherwise there’s little to recommend.